Dr. Thomas Sowell
Black Economist Thomas Sowell — Champion of A Color-Blind Society
by Allan C. Brownfeld
ALEXANDRIA, VA – Thomas Sowell, one of America's foremost public intellectuals and most outspoken black conservatives, submitted his final column in December after 25 years in syndication. At age 86, he said, he thought that the time had come to retire from this enterprise. Hopefully, his other literary pursuits will continue.
For more than 50 years, Sowell has published books and journals on race, economics, and government policy. He grew up in Harlem and was the first member of his family to go beyond 6th grade -- eventually graduating from Harvard.
A self-proclaimed Marxist in his twenties, he received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago, where he studied under Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economic advocate of free markets. Sowell slowly lost faith in the ability of government to effectuate positive change in our economic life. He taught economics at Cornell and UCLA and has been a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University since 1980. I visited him shortly after he moved into his office at Stanford. I remember having dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Palo Alto, putting a tape recorder on the table, and engaging in a lengthy interview subsequently published in Human Events.
International Framework of Analysis
In a landmark study, The Economics and Politics of Race: An International Perspective (1983), followed by an impressive succession of important books, Sowell uses an international framework to analyze group differences. Examining the experience of different groups in more than a dozen countries, he seeks to determine how much of each group's economic fate has been due to the surrounding society, and how much has been due to internal patterns that follow the same group around the world.
Italians in Australia and Argentina, for example, show social and economic patterns that are similar in many respects to those of Italians in Italy or the United States. Chinese college students in Malaysia specialize in very much the same fields in which they specialize in American colleges – a far different set of specializations from those of other groups in both countries. Germans have similarly concentrated in very similar industries and occupations in Australia, North America, and South America.
Pivotal Role of Culture
In Southeast Asia, for example, the Chinese have been subjected to widespread discrimination. Quota systems were established in government employment and in admission to universities in Malaysia, and a target of 30 percent Malayan ownership in business and industry was established. In Indonesia, a 1959 law forbade the Chinese to engage in retailing in the villages, and Chinese-owned rice mills were confiscated. In the Philippines, it was decreed that no new Chinese import businesses could be established, and Chinese establishments were closed by law.
Despite all of this, Sowell points out, the Chinese thrived. As of 1972, they owned between 50 and 95 percent of the capital in Thailand’s banking and finance industries, transportation, wholesale and retail trade, restaurants, and import and export businesses. In Malaysia, the Chinese earned double the income of Malays in 1976, despite a massive government program imposing preferential treatment of Malays in the private economy. In the United States, as in Southeast Asia, writes Sowell, “The Chinese became hated for their virtues.” Despite discrimination, the Chinese advanced rapidly in the United States, as did the Japanese, who encountered similar forms of racial bigotry, including special taxes and job restrictions.
In Europe, Sowell points out, precisely the same story can be told with respect to Jews. Anti-semitism was a powerful force in many countries, yet Jews continued to advance. Although Jews were only one percent of the German population, they became 10 percent of the doctors and dentists and 17 percent of the lawyers, and they won 27 percent of the Nobel Prizes awarded to Germans from 1901 to 1975. In the United States, notes Sowell, “Although the Jewish immigrants arrived with less money than most other immigrants, their rise to prosperity was unparalleled. Working long hours at low pay, they nevertheless saved money to start their own small businesses... or to send a child to college. While the Jews were initially destitute in financial terms, they brought with them not only specific skills but a tradition of success and entrepreneurship which could not be confiscated or eliminated, as the Russian and Polish governments had confiscated their wealth and eliminated most of their opportunities.”
The two black groups – native-born Americans and West Indians -- suffered the same racial discrimination, but each advanced at dramatically different rates. By 1969, black West Indians earned 94 percent of the average income of Americans in general, while native blacks earned only 62 percent. Second-generation West Indians earned 15 percent more than the average American. West Indians owned more than 50 percent of all black-owned businesses in New York State. The highest ranking blacks in the New York City Police Department in 1970 were all West Indians, as were all the black judges in the city.
It is a serious mistake, Sowell believes, to ignore the fact that economic performance differences between whole races and cultures are “quite real and quite large.” Attitudes of work habits, he argues, are key ingredients of success or failure. The market rewards certain kinds of behavior and penalizes other behaviors – in a color-blind manner. Blaming discrimination by others for a group’s status, he states, ignores the lessons of history.
Failure of Political Solutions
Political efforts to address the “problems” of minorities, such as race-based affirmative action programs, usually fail, Sowell reports, because they refuse to deal with the real causes of such difficulties: “... political ‘solutions’ tend to misconceive the basic issues... black civil rights leaders... often earn annual incomes running into hundreds of thousands of dollars, even if their programs and approaches prove futile for the larger purpose of lifting other blacks out of poverty.”
Crucial to a group’s ability to advance is the stability of its family life and the willingness to sacrifice: "... more than four-fifths of all white children live with both their parents. But among black children, less than half live with both parents.... What is relevant is the willingness to pay a price to achieve goals. Large behavioral differences suggest that the trade-off of competing desires vary enormously among ethnic groups.... The complex personal and social prerequisites for a prosperous level of output are often simply glided over, and material wealth treated as having been produced somehow, with the only real question being how to distribute it justly.”
It is Sowell's view that many black leaders have not served their constituencies but themselves. Instead of expressing concern over the decline of the black family, the increasing out-of-wedlock birth rate, and the rise of inner-city crime, they speak only of “discrimination.” Instead of calling for an end to government licensing laws, such as those that limit the number of taxicabs in cities like New York and Philadelphia, they call for more government make-work jobs.
While many blame all problems within the black community on the legacy of slavery, Sowell points to the fact that more black children lived in two-parent families during slavery, Reconstruction, and the years of segregation than at the present time. He writes that, “In reality, most black children were raised in two-parent homes, even during the era of slavery and for generations after, blacks had higher rates of marriage then whites in the early twentieth century, and higher rates of labor force participation in every census from 1890 to 1950. The real causes of the very different patterns among blacks in the world of today must be sought in the twentieth century, not in the era before emancipation.”
Tom Sowell has been telling the hard truth for many years, and he has received much abuse for doing so. He has been a strong advocate for a genuinely color-blind society, one in which men and women would be judged on their individual merit rather than on the basis of race. All Americans who believe in such a society, and believe that one’s views about economic, political, and other matters should be based on the facts as one sees them – not on race, religion, or ethnicity as the promoters of today's identity politics would have it – should recognize what a champion of freedom Sowell has been.
We will miss his regular column, but we hope he will continue to share his wisdom with us. It is certain that his intellectual legacy will grow, for it is based on scholarship and a search for truth, not on the changing needs of our political class for convenient and popular responses to the complex challenges we face. Sadly, there are too few such people among us. For a free society to thrive, we need more Thomas Sowells. We have been lucky indeed to have him with us.
Copyright (c ) 2017 by Allan Brownfeld and FGF Books. All rights reserved.
Allan Brownfeld is the author of several books, including Hung Up On Freedom; The New Left; and Dossier On Douglas. He is co-author with J.A. Parker of What The Negro Can Do About Crime; and co-author with J. Michael Waller of The Revolution Lobby.
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